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The term serendipity ( English serendipity ), occasionally also serendipity principle or serendipity principle , describes a chance observation of something originally not sought, which turns out to be a new and surprising discovery. Related, but not identical, is the broader expression of happy coincidence . Serendipity emphasizes an additional investigative activity, an intelligent conclusion, or resourcefulness.


The British author Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797), used the term for the first time in a letter dated January 28, 1754 to his friend Horace Mann, who lived in Florence. He explained that he had coined it based on a Persian fairy tale with the English title The Three Princes of Serendip , in which the three princes make many of these unexpected discoveries. Serendip orسرنديب / Sarandīb is an old name, coined by Arab traders, for Ceylon, today's Sri Lanka , and has its roots in the old Sanskrit name of the island, Simhaladvipa . The worldwide spread, which the term received mainly in scientific circles, goes back to the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003). It can be found for the first time in 1945 in his work The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity .

The story of the three princes of Serendip is believed to have originated from the Indo-Persian poet Amir Chusro . In 1557 it was told by the Italian poet Christoforo Armeno .

Well-known and important examples

Known examples of serendipity, the discovery of America in 1492 , the discovery of X-rays , the penicillin and Viagra , the second adhesive or the cosmic background radiation . However, it also describes events that are almost accidental and lead diligent researchers to discoveries, including the benzene ring , which finally appeared in a dream. Other examples are the Velcro fastener , the Post-it , the Teflon , the linoleum , the silicone , the "invention" of the teabag , the nylon stockings or the discovery of LSD . In this context the phrase "Chance only favors a prepared mind" is often used; That means: The discovery comes when someone has worked a lot on it, but often at ease, it then falls to him.

The dinosaur Serendipaceratops was named according to this principle, because its first description only discovered the true family relationships by chance.

Serendipity in Information Science

Serendipity effects can also play a role in the field of information retrieval , for example if useful information is unintentionally discovered while surfing the Internet . Research in professional databases and comparable information systems can lead to serendipity effects. Here serendipity becomes a measure of the ability of an information system to find useful information despite an oversupply of data.

The following formula tries to evaluate how far an information system is able to find useful information.

: Serendipity

: Number of usable documents - albeit for a different search argument!

: Number of documents not relevant for the search argument (see Recall and Precision )

The Serendipitätseffekt is not limited to hypertext, but also occurs when browsing in the open access library, or the offer of a well-stocked bookstore. The term browsing was used for this long before the advent of the Internet . Eugen Roth humorously processed this effect in his poem Das Hilfbuch .

See also


The US cinema production Because there are you (original title: Serendipity) from 2001 with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in the leading roles, takes up the theme of serendipity. The film premiered in the United States on October 5, 2001, and was released in Germany and Switzerland on November 29, 2001.


  • Christoforo Armeno: Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo, dalla persiana nell'italiana lingua trapportato . Venice 1557.
  • Theodore G. Remer (Ed.): Serendipity and the Three Princes . University Press, Oklahoma 1965.
  • Jutta HT Klawitter-Pommer, Wolf D. Hoffmann: Overview of the most important parameters for the performance comparison of several literature databases . In: Nachrichten für Documentation 27, 1976, ISSN  0027-7436 , pp. 103-108.
  • Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity. Accidental Discoveries in Science . Wiley, New York 1989, ISBN 0-471-60203-5 .
  • Pek van Andel: Anatomy of the unsought finding: Serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability . In: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science . 45 (2), 1994, pp. 631-648, University Press, Oxford.
  • Sheldon Lee Glashow : Immanuel Kant versus the Princes of Serendip: Does science evolve through blind chance or intelligent design? In: Contribs Sci . tape 2 , 2002, p. 252–255 ( ( Memento from September 21, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) [PDF; 106 kB ] Ed. Institut d'Estudis Catalans , Barcelona).
  • Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science . Princeton University Press, Princeton 2004, ISBN 0-691-11754-3 .
  • Andreas M Cohrs: California Serendipity - Through Desert and High Sierra . Info Verlag, Bretten, ISBN 978-3-88190-680-7
  • Robert K. Merton: On the shoulders of giants . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-518-28026-0 .
  • Patrick J. Hannan: Serendipity, Luck, and Wisdom in Research . iUniverse, New York 2006, ISBN 0-595-36551-5 .
  • Martin Schneider: Teflon , Post-it and Viagra . Wiley-VCH, Weinheim 2006, ISBN 3-527-31643-4 .
  • Gudrun Schury: If you don't look, you will find. Chance discoveries in science . Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-593-37799-3 .
  • Heinrich Zankl : The vagaries of chance. Scientific discoveries from Archimedes to the present day . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2002, ISBN 3-89678-428-5 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. "the discovery through chance by a theoretically prepared mind of valid findings which were not sought for". In: Robert K. Merton: Social Theory and Social Structure. The Free Press, Glencoe IL 1957, p. 12.
  2. ^ C. Clayton Casson: Victory in Life: Twelve Principles for Success. AuthorHouse, 2007. ISBN 1-4343-0542-2 , p. 229
  3. Jakob Krameritsch: History (s) in the network. Hypertext and its potential for the production, representation and reception of the historical narrative. Waxmann, Münster 2007, p. 189.